One of the most important inventions of the late 18th century was gas lighting. It was developed by William Murdock, who was the son of an Ayrshire millwright. He was born in 1754 and initially worked with his father before joining Boulton and Watt in Birmingham. In 1777 he walked the three hundred miles to Birmingham, where he met James Watt in the hope of finding employment at the works. Watt’s business partner, Matthew Boulton, took him on and later described him as the finest engine erector he had ever seen.

James Watt spent a lot of time in Cornwall persuading mine owners to buy his steam pumping engines. In 1779 he had to leave Cornwall due to ill health and so Murdock was sent there to look after the company’s interests and supervise the installation of the Boulton and Watt pumping engines that were used in the local tin mines.

An early gas wall light.
Murdock lived in Cornwall for 19 years and married a local girl; Ann Paynter. He was an inventive genius and spent a lot time experimenting at home. Amongst his many inventions was a steam powered vehicle. He built a model of the vehicle in 1784 and ran it at night through the streets of Redruth. This was seen by Richard Trevithick, the inventor of the steam locomotive. It’s possible that Trevithick got the idea from Murdock’s model. Murdock approached his employers with a view to getting a full sized version built, but this was strongly opposed by Boulton and Watt who made him promise to entirely abandon the idea. After this let down he pursued other ideas. He invented the ‘D’ slide valve for steam engines and in 1791 took out a patent for a process to produce coal tar dyes and also extract a paint from coal, which could be applied to boats to prevent barnacles from attaching themselves to hulls.
His best known invention was the use of coal gas for lighting. In 1792 he heated coal in a closed iron retort with a hollow pipe attached. The gas produced from the heated coal flowed through the pipe and was burnt at the end to produce a steady flame. The story is told that as a child he heated coal in his mother’s old kettle and lit the gas that came out of the spout. In 1794 he heated coal in a closed iron vessel in his garden at Cross Street, Redruth and piped the resulting gas into the house, where he lit a series of burners attached to the other end of the pipe. This was the first practical system of gas lighting to be used anywhere in the world. This invention was also opposed by Boulton and Watt and so Murdock left the company in 1797 and moved back to Scotland.

Boulton and Watt soon realised their mistake and a year later Murdock was offered the post of Manager at Soho Works. In 1801 Philippe Lebon demonstrated gas lighting publicly in Paris and in 1802 Boulton and Watt agreed to the installation of two gas lamps outside the Soho factory. This was the first installation of gas lighting in the country. The following year the whole works was illuminated by gas. In 1806 the cotton spinning mill at Manchester that was owned by Phillips and Lee was illuminated by Murdock’s gas lights and his invention was soon in demand. It was not long before all large factories were using gas lights. He was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Society in recognition of his achievement.

Murdock’s interest was solely in lighting individual buildings, each complete with its own gas production equipment, but others considered the possibility of lighting many buildings, whole streets and even complete towns by the installation of gas mains, which were fed from a large gasworks.

A simple gas ceiling light.

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